Tag Archives: Avant Scène

Being Benevolent

What could be better than spending 4 days at Cognac’s European literature festival, surrounded by books?

OK, winning the lottery, maybe. Or creating world peace.

But within the constraints of my little bookish life, what did I find even better than just attending last week’s Littératures Européennes, as I do every year?

The answer is being a volunteer (in French, we say a bénévole). Yes, I had my first voluntary experience there, last weekend, in a team with the 40 other book-loving volunteers and it heightened my appreciation of the whole literary festival.

As you’ll know if you’ve read my 2015 and 2016 blog posts about the festival, the idea is to get to know our fellow Europeans better through reading books. Each year one country or region is selected: for this year’s edition, the theme was the Mediterranean islands.

The Littératures Européennes association chooses books set in the country of honour and translated into French. The shortlisted ones are sent to libraries and schools all over Poitou-Charentes, who vote for their favourites. All the authors are invited to the festival to meet the public, and the winners in each category receive prizes.

courtesy of Le Texte Libre

I have avoided volunteering up to now (apart from odd slots at my favourite Le Texte Libre bookshop stand) because I like to be free to explore, to listen to the talks and to meet the authors. I thought that as a volunteer I would be stuck in one place, dealing with complaints and telling people where the toilets were while exciting events sparkled all around me.

No, Harriet. Wrong again! Well, some people did ask where the toilets were – and I must admit that I made a fab list of the most bizarre things I was asked – but I certainly wasn’t stuck in one place. We were able to take part in our choice of events, since we worked in pairs. And instead of suffering complaints, we were kissed with compliments.

It was great to work alongside the other association members and get to know them while we welcomed authors and translators, prepared rooms for round table events and helped out visitors. In fact, if this blog post is rather light on photos of people, it’s because I was far too busy looking helpful to use my camera!

La Salamandre (Courtesy of the VIlle de Cognac)

I knew that the festival was free and that you could watch discussions between authors on specific European themes. These take place at La Salamandre conference centre, which has an auditorium, an onsite literary café and smaller rooms.

I’d also been to the popular panel between shortlisted authors for the Prix des Lecteurs, (readers’ prize) which is held at Cognac’s Avant Scène theatre.

Prix des Lecteurs, Avant Scène theatre

What I didn’t know about were the numerous events organised outside the boundaries of the talks, prizegiving ceremonies and bookshop stands.

Thursday was dedicated to secondary school pupils, who came for special activities led by a selection of authors. The booktubing session – where real-life booktubers Lizzie and Gwendoline filmed pupils talking about their favourite festival books – was a highlight for me. It was also useful because a high school will be booktubing on my own novel, Tree Magic, next spring.

Friday saw high school students take over the conference centre. Their sessions taught them about careers in publishing and they also filmed each other interviewing the authors. And primary schools were not forgotten, as children’s authors and illustrators drove all over the region to speak to classes.

Children were also an important focus of the festival during the public opening at the weekend. A whole room was allocated to children’s workshops, films, musical siestas and readings, which ran all day on Saturday and Sunday.

This year the variety of public events was much wider. Authors gave readings, which you could listen to on headphones while drinking a coffee or wandering round the stalls. There were photography exhibitions, performed plays, book signings, film projections and readings accompanied by music.

I loved the fun ‘tarot-card’ game with mysterious goddess Circe, who would find the text to match your mood and read it to you. In the evenings, festival partners provided entertainment, including a play at Hennessy’s theatre, ‘Les Quais, Ici ou Ailleurs’, and a film projected by Eurociné.

As the theme was the Mediterranean Islands, you could hear authors speaking in Italian, Sicilian, Greek, Corsican, Cypriot, Maltese and Croatian. There were also plenty of discussions about insularity, war, the Mafia, leprosy and the refugee situation. I did hear one British accent among the authors: Emma Jane Kirby dropped in and talked (in excellent French) about her novel The Optician of Lampedusa.

Other authors present included 2012 Goncourt winner Jérôme Ferrari and the current writer-in-residence, Sicilian Davide Enia. Davide is the author of Palermo boxing novel On Earth As It Is In Heaven, and was everyone’s darling. The audiences laughed at his jokes and he spoke in a charming choreography of Italian gestures. During his six-week residency he worked hard, visiting schools, libraries and bookshops throughout the region to talk about Sicily and his work.

I had a coup de coeur for Sophie Chérer, author of L’Huile d’Olive Ne Meurt Jamais, which is based on a true story about mafia resistance. She talked to a group of secondary school pupils and made them think about what success actually means, in terms of a book. She also asked them how they felt about books being put in competition with each other to win a prize, and explained why she found this odd. Ironically, Sophie later learnt she’d won the secondary school readers’ prize.

One of my favourites from a previous year (see my 2015 blog post about the London edition of the festival) was also present. Henriette Walker, etymologist extraordinaire from the French Academy, was back to fascinate the audience with her talk about the origins of language in the Mediterranean islands.

Imagine my delight when I saw that her latest book was all about the names of trees. Needless to say, we had an interesting discussion, which ended with a simultaneous book signing.

Sunday evening’s magical, musical reading by refugee story-collector François Beaune, was followed by clearing up and then a drink and pizza for the volunteers.

We’ll be meeting again in a few weeks for a debriefing – which is, of course, an excuse to catch up with all our new friends.

Next year’s festival, held from 15-18 November 2018, will be honouring the countries around the Baltic Sea for its 30th anniversary. Why don’t you come along and discover them through their authors’ voices?

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Hot Streets

One of the things I love about summer is the festival season. Cognac may be a tiny town but we’re spoilt for choice. You know all about Cognac’s Mars Planète Danse festival in March – if you don’t, read my blog post. There’s also a big music festival in the first weekend of July (Cognac Blues Passions) and a music / local-produce picnic festival at the end of July (La Fête du Cognac).

The end of the summer doesn’t mean the end of the festivals: oh no, not for us Cognac die-hards, raving with festival fever.

On 14th-16th October there’s the Polar festival, which is not all about the Polar regions (you have permission to groan). The translation of polar is detective / crime / whodunit / thriller, and the festival is a celebration of this genre in the form of novels, comics, cinema, television and theatre.

Then we have the European literary festival on 17th-20th November (featuring Scotland this year, among other countries that have towns twinned with Cognac) – see my blog post from last year’s edition. I may even manage a post about this year’s edition before the event, if you ask nicely.

copyright Xavier Cantat

Rigoletto (copyright Xavier Cantat)

But my favourite is, and always has been, the Coup de Chauffe street theatre festival.

It’s organised by Cognac’s Avant Scène theatre in collaboration with the CNAR Sur Le Pont in La Rochelle, one of France’s national street theatre centres. This year is the 22nd edition and it’s taking place on Saturday 3rd & Sunday 4th September (there are no Friday evening shows this year).

Whatever you do, don’t come to this festival.

You won’t like the fact it’s completely free – one of the only free ones in France. You won’t enjoy laughing at the clowns or the circus acts. You won’t like the music bands meandering through the streets, the exhibitions, the dance performances, the amusing and thought-provoking theatre shows. And you certainly won’t like the relaxed, convivial atmosphere. The Coup de Chauffe is Cognac’s best kept secret – although the audiences seem to get bigger each year, so someone is obviously letting the cat out of the bag.

And because you definitely don’t want to come, the lovely Audrey at Avant Scène has given me a list of the shows that don’t require French language skills. There’s nothing worse than hearing everyone around you laughing when you don’t understand what’s funny. Though maybe that’s nothing to do with the language, come to think of it.

Unlike last year, you won’t need your walking boots, as the shows will be centred in the Parc François 1er, Jardin Public and town centre. This year is also Cognac’s 1000th anniversary, and the town will be celebrating by a big, collective performance featuring many festival artistes on the Saturday evening. Don’t come to this. It will be too much fun. I suggest you stay at home and watch TV instead.

So, which shows will be easy to understand?

copyright Paul Herrmann

Pig (copyright Paul Herrmann)

Firstly, a group of British actors are coming with their pig. As you do. Their show is called…yes, ‘Pig’. So once you’ve played the piglet to their 9-metre-long sow, you could have a chat with Manchester-based ‘Whalley Range All Stars‘ in the Jardin Public.

Ballet Bar‘, a mix of hip-hop, narrative, mime and circus, will be acted outside for the first time, although they have plenty of experience in theatres.

Attention Je Vais Eternuer‘ (Be careful, I’m about to sneeze – that’s a translation, not me warning you that I’m actually going to sneeze, obviously) is a dance duo performance with changes of clothes at its heart.

copyright Nicolas Thebault

Ballet Bar (copyright Nicolas Thebault)

In Paradise‘ is also dance, this time to rock music. And if you prefer Verdi to rock, you must see ‘Rigoletto‘, an irreverent street opera show in which a brass band and 4 singers use the Bel Canto form to act out a story. ‘Les Kaléidophones‘ is a sound décor, a combination of actors with cornets for listening to the environment.

There are also acrobatic displays with ‘Dynamite and Poetry‘ and ‘A Corps Perdus‘, involving equipment such as the Russian bar and Chinese poles.

If you like the screen, try ‘La Boîte Noire‘, a 3-metre-square cube in which a series of dancers, actors and musicians perform. The image is projected live onto a screen outside the box for the audience to watch.

There are lots more theatre-based performances, which you’ll enjoy if your French is up to it. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing the company ‘Annibal et Ses Eléphants‘ and ‘Qualité Street‘, whose past shows have delighted me. I’m intrigued by the ironic ‘Cocktail Party‘ and am ready (or am I?) to face the migrant issues with ‘Bouc de là‘.

For practical details of times and venues, pick up your programme from tourist offices or check out the Avant Scène website.

So, the 3rd and 4th September. Have you got that? Good. Mark the dates in your diary with ‘early night’ or ‘TV weekend’ or ‘visit the in-laws’ or ‘clean house’. Write anything you like, in fact, as long as it’s not Cognac Coup de Chauffe.

I’ll (not) see you there.

Discovering Dance

For a short version of this post, see my guest blog posts at Living magazine.

affiche mars planete danseLet’s get this straight: I know nothing about dance. But I do know that I’m in for a treat with Cognac’s annual dance festival, organised by Avant Scène. It’s held in March and there are always a variety of styles. The quality is world class – the difficulty is knowing which shows will appeal to me most.

I usually wait until the last minute and then bug my French choreographer friend Marie Lenfant for advice. She knows I like to be shocked, delighted or made to think.

This year I was organised, for once. Rather than relying on Marie’s advice, I decided to be grown up and decide for myself. So off I went to the festival preview evening. This promised video clips and explanations to help uninitiated people (like me) understand what the shows are all about.

The preview was a show in itself. Held a month before the festival, in cabaret-style intimacy within the theatre viewing room, it finished with a shower of confetti, glasses of champagne and an invitation for the audience to dance and sing to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’.

OK, I didn’t dance – but by the end I knew which shows I wanted to see. If you’re thinking of going to the festival next year, I’d definitely recommend the preview. The video teaser is another option, though you won’t get the confetti or the champagne.

Cognac’s theatre director, Stéphane Jouan, is mad about dance. And he’s relatively new. So he has decided to give the festival brand new names to reflect each year’s theme. Instead of the former ‘Danse et Vous’, he chose ‘Mars Planète Danse’ for the 2016 edition. Why? Apart from the (accidental?) David Bowie tribute, this title hints at the different worlds each show presents.

“The festival isn’t a catalogue of different styles,” he says. “Each show carries a world. The idea is to see how each show reflects the others.”

And, wow, there were indeed some different worlds!

What’s great about contemporary dance is that it’s not about dancing. It’s about dancers using their bodies to show you something, to make you feel a series of emotions. You don’t have to know anything about dancing to have an emotive response to what you see. And that’s what I like. I even had a lightbulb moment when I realised that it’s the equivalent of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ in literature.

Which brings us to the theme of the first show I watched: Kaori Ito‘s ‘Je danse parce que je me méfie des mots’ (I dance because I distrust words). I could write a whole blog post on the performance by the Japanese dancer and her sculptor father – but words wouldn’t do it justice. You’d do better to see it yourself. Also, there’s nothing more boring than reading someone’s interpretation of a show – apart from having to listen to the same thing, perhaps. Or holiday photos.

Kaori & Hiroshi Ito, courtesy of Avant Scène theatre, Cognac & Gregory Batardon

Kaori & Hiroshi Ito, courtesy of Avant Scène & Gregory Batardon

Words were an important part of the festival theme too. The festival opened with Kaori’s show, in which the dancers dance because they distrust words. And it finished with the show ‘Relative Collider’, in which words incite the performers to dance.

Perhaps it was the theme of words which led to another key feature of the dance festival: the opportunity to meet choreographers during the free ‘Instants Bavards’ (Chats).

The first one was with 36-year-old Kaori and her father, Hiroshi, in the intimacy of the Texte Libre bookshop (please, please buy your books here – they have English titles and not only are they independent, they’re also a non-profit association).

These Chats take place before the show itself, so you inevitably warm to the performers and understand better what they’re communicating when their (oh so toned) bodies weave their magic on stage. Kaori and Hiroshi’s father-daughter relationship, and the way Kaori questions her father incessantly, from child through to adult, mean that every spectator can identify with the issues she raises.

courtesy of Avant Scène & Danny Willems

Badke, courtesy of Avant Scène & Danny Willems

The second show of the evening, Badke, was to be performed by a band of 10 Palestinian dancers.

No way could I possibly enjoy it as much as Kaori’s work, I thought, during the interval, as I ordered my soup from the kitchen installed in the theatre reception for the evening and run by Le Plaisir des Mets. Soup was enough, as I’d already enjoyed cheese and wine just before the show at the festival inauguration.

Well, I was wrong. Clever Stéphane Jouan, to put two such different styles together in a single evening. They were completely incomparable. Badke was a burst of joyous energy – an hour-long explosion of lively music, accompanied by a choreography of break-dancing, somersaults and contemporary dance.

The dancers were a shoal of fish, they were a couple fighting for domination, they were a girl seducing another girl, they were festive, they were perplexed – and although they were a group, each dancer had his or her own character. I felt rejuvenated at the end, inspired to dance, to celebrate life through my body. It’s a shame I’m incapable of coordinating arms with legs.

Are you bored yet? Shall I show you my holiday photos now?

Dance buzzed around my head until the following Tuesday, the date with IT Dansa, a Barcelona dance company boasting 16 international young talents. Talent really was the key word to describe these performers, who began the trio of shows with the ballet ‘Un Ballo’ to music from Ravel. This soothing performance of classical ballet was beauty in movement, every little girl’s dream.

IT Dansa, courtesy of Avant Scène theatre, Cognac

IT Dansa, courtesy of Avant Scène

What a shock to see the same faces in the second, violent, part of the trio: Wad Ras. With their long hair loosened and their hands slamming rhythms on Cajon drums, the ballet dancers transformed into angry prisoners. The combination of lighting, the brutal whipping of their hair and the ferocity of their movements brought the piece to a heart-stopping climax.

Although IT Dansa and the Badke dancers were both big groups, their approach was completely different. IT Dansa were homogenous, synchronised and faceless, while Badke played on individual characters.

The third part of IT Dansa’s trio was different again: the playful Minus 16. Still synchronised, they danced with the instinctive movements you can see on any dance floor (the Gaga technique, according to the programme). Luckily, I wasn’t chosen from the public to dance on stage in the final part of the show, whose aim was to prove that dance is a universal language. Had I been dragged up there, I might have disproved the theory.

In the spirit of the festival, which brought performers close to their audiences, there was a possibility to meet the dancers at the end of the show. I have to admit that I went home to bed.

Three days later I was back in the theatre for the Chat with Baro d’Evel Cirk in the bar. There were only a few members of the public, so it was a perfect opportunity to ask questions. Halfway through our discussions, the performers Delgado Fuchs arrived. They dropped their bags and joined us for Cognac-Schweppes, nibbles and some interesting exchanges – including one about the pressure to produce a new show once you’ve had success with one. This, again, reminded me of the literary world, in which a bestselling debut novelist is under pressure to produce a new bestseller.

Mazut, courtesy of Avant Scène theatre, Cognac

Mazut, courtesy of Avant Scène

These two dance companies were on stage the following evening. Baro d’Evel Cirk kicked off with ‘Mazùt’ – a search for the performers’ animal interiors. Their circus background and use of props took the emphasis away from the world of dance, demonstrating Stéphane’s point that “dance is a language, and can be successfully combined with other languages.”

The dog (yes, a real, non-performing dog) brought an element of reality to the scene of everyday work in the Mazùt research laboratory – as did the clever use of rain leaks and tin cans. Baro d’Evel Cirk will be coming back to Cognac later this year, along with their circus tent and a different show (with horses, apparently).

Delgado Fuchs, courtesy of Avant Scène theatre, Cognac & Sophie Ballmer

Delgado Fuchs, courtesy of Avant Scène & Sophie Ballmer

The evening’s shock came with Delgado Fuchs. Their subtle humour and disregard for society’s dress code rules (yes, I’m talking about nudity here) led to a refreshing, amusing and clever performance. It made me think about the body as an instrument compared to the body as a person. There were no final bows here – just a polaroid camera, a stage set and an invitation to chat over drinks in the bar.

The festival continued (although I couldn’t) for another week. Betty Tchomanga, who was in residence at the theatre last October, presented ‘Madame’. The equilibrist Jordi Gali staged his wood, stone and tyre show at Hennessy’s Les Quais – he was also in Cognac last autumn at the Coup de Chauffe street theatre festival. And Vincent Dupont‘s ‘Stéréoscopia’ followed by Liz Santoro and Pierre Godard’s ‘Relative Collider‘ rounded off the festival, nearly three weeks after it began.

The great thing about this festival is the variety of styles, each of which is brilliantly performed. The shows are expensive (22€ for a whole evening), but there are also worthwhile reductions (10€ tickets for the unemployed and 14€ for a 3-evening pass). The festival ambience is heightened by the contact with the performers, and being able to discuss the shows with other theatre-goers at the bar. I’m already looking forward to next year’s edition.

Are you still here?

OK, here are some photos from my last holiday. Let me tell you about…